Top 5 tricks for taking professional looking photos with your digital camera

May 10, 2007 @ 11:41 pm by Samir Bharadwaj  

It’s great when technology in a field advances to a state where the field suddenly opens up to the masses in a way that was never possible before. You could say things like YouTube have done that for the world of video, but long before that development, photography was brought into the mainstream in a whole new way with the popularisation of the digital cameras. Sure the film camera was very popular before then, but there was the developing and the waiting, all of which went out the window with digital. Now you didn’t need to think too much before taking a photo because you weren’t wasting precious film. And that is the crux of the matter. You know what the best thing is about digital photography? Anyone can now take photographs. You know the worst thing about digital photography? Anyone can now take photographs.

It shows. Most photographs taken by the average guy or gal is not quite hight-art, to put it mildly. In fact, if you’re honest with yourself you could even get yourself to admit that most people take photographs which are absolutely BAD. Now wouldn’t it be great if there were some simple tricks you could use to make your photos look better? These are the cherished memories of the people you love (most of the time), after all. They deserve to be good. If that’s the way you feel, try out these basic techniques to take your holiday snapshots and party memorabilia to a whole new level.

1. Use the vertical

Landscape vs portrait format photographsThe handheld camera has traditionally been a horizontal or landscape instrument. It is the way cameras are designed to be held, one of the reasons being that it is easier to hold them steady that way. But it is not the only way to take a photograph. Regular snapshots are often plagued with a boring consistency of being in the landscape format and sometimes it pays to think differently.

If you think the shot doesn’t look quite right, try turning your camera on its side and you will be surprised at how much of the difference it can make to your pictures. The camera might be designed in a landscape format, but unfortunately the world isn’t always suitably wide to fit into the frame. In fact, if you think about it, you probably spend most of your time behind your camera taking pictures of people, and the last time I checked people are most certainly not built in a landscape format. Make this simple change and you might be able to stand taller the next time you are sharing your holiday photos with friends.

2. Switch off that flash

Flash on vs off in photographsOne of the best developments in modern photography for the lay person has been automatic cameras. With auto-focus, auto-exposure, and auto-flash, you can safely take photos without a thought. Unfortunately to take good photos a bit of thinking can sometimes help, and the cameras can’t do it for you. They can only calculate. A camera doesn’t decide to turn on the flash because it thinks the picture needs more light, it just turns it on because a mathematical calculation shows that it needs more light. That mathematical calculation is not always right, and right or wrong the flash almost always ruins the final result.

Dead white faces, blue tinged scenes and people who look like they were caught in front of the blazing headlights of an oncoming truck. These are all symptoms of the photographs that relied too much on the camera’s judgement on flash usage. Try second guessing your machine, and rely on the miracle of natural light on some occasions. You might need to take a little extra care in holding the camera steady for longer exposure times, but you will marvel at the results.

3. Get close to your subject

Distant vs close-ups photographs

An instant way to recognize the clueless photographer is that they stand too far away from their subject. This is fine when you need to take a wide angle shot of the grand canyon with your friends dwarfed before it for effect, but most of the time it’s not. The majority of the photos you take will be about the people, and even if you want to include some of the cool background for posterity, you will find that you need less of the background than you think.

Use the miraculous zoom lens you have on your camera. Better yet, take a few steps towards those wonderful people holding maniacal grins on their faces just for you. Don’t worry, they wont bite. And what you’ll get will be photos that are much more dramatic, much more personal, and much more beautiful than those shots you’ve been getting of whole famous buildings where you need to convince people that that tiny speck at the bottom is indeed you.

4. Use the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds used in a photograph

All good images come down to good composition. Artists and designers can spend years understanding and practising the nuances of what makes a good visual composition. But since you don’t have years to take that shot as your wife/girlfriend/miscellaneous family member balances precariously on some ledge, you need a quick fix and this is one of the easier ones. The rule of thirds isn’t so much of a rule as it is a guide line. The idea is that if you drawing lines over your image to divide it into three equal horizontal rows and three equal vertical columns, you are most likely to get an attractive result if you place your major points of interest at the intersection points of the lines or along the lines.

We don’t need to analyse why this works, but know that it does in the majority of the situations. If you’re used to putting everything smack dab in the middle of the farme and turning up some very boring shots, try this out. It can be a good rule of thumb to decide on a shot, and it rarely makes things worse. Like all rules though, once you truly learn and master it, you will have a lot of fun breaking it in creative ways.

5. Save face with telephoto

Wide angle vs telephoto photographs

By default, most cameras have a wide-angle lens. This basically means your camera can look at a very wide view of the world around. Our own eyes are not as wide-angled and a bit more “zoomed-in”. These zoomed-in views are possible in a camera using a telephoto lens. The problem occurs when you try to take close up shots of people with a wide-angle lens. Their faces end up looking funny because this is not how you can see them with your eyes. Heads become distorted, faces seem to bulge, and arms and shoulders that are closer to the camera begin to look too large in proportion.

The way to solve this problem is to use your zoom lens and step back a little from the person when taking a portrait shot. This way you get a close up of the face without all the wide-angle distortion. Now you won’t have to hear all those complaints about you always ruining people’s faces in your photographs. Another relationship saved by the power of good photography!

Hope you enjoyed these quick tips. What are your secret formulas for taking good shots? Please share them by leaving a comment here. I would love to hear what you do to dazzle your friends with your photographic prowess. Keep on clicking.

This post was inspired and instigated by the Top 5 group writing project over at Problogger.net.

183 Comments & links »

  • nimmagadda srinivas says:

    hi, samir nice to be with u.Ienjoyed ur all tips &suggestions.recently with comparision nikonL120 i purchased fujiS3300 is my pick is correct?keep on giving valubles from u

    • Thanks for dropping by and good to know the tips were helpful. After a quick look, the Fuji S3300 does seem like a good choice. Fuji cameras in general are usually pretty good performers. Like all cameras they have their quirks, and Fuji is technologically different in some ways than the other brands, but once you learn to work with those differences, they produce good results. Best of luck with your new camera.

  • Lucy says:

    Hi. i want to become a model. but to do that i need to take prefesional pictures, of my self in the woods and outside etc. well any advice on that?

  • Andre says:

    Awesome tips mate…

  • a.b.s.manian says:

    Nice tips. Thank you. I have Olympus camera and I would like to take snaps at night( in candle lights) without using flash. But How do I switch off the flash mode off. Please help me.

  • felicia says:

    Hello i love taking photos period i have a camera that is worthless what camera would you recommend of me getting i would like it to have several features on it i like edited photos with effects please help

    • Felicia,
      That question is not an easy one to answer unfortunately, and depends on many factors. Such as what sort of photography you enjoy, your budget, and also what you find lacking in your current camera. Send me a message with some more details using my contact page and I’m sure we can narrow down your choices.

  • Shirish Naik says:

    Dear Samir,
    Thanks for great tips, what is your opinion about Sony HX100V and Fuji HX20,
    I bought this camera few days back and result are very good.
    Can I have tips for this cam.

    Shirish Naik

    • Shirish,
      I don’t know a lot about these specific cameras; It’s really impossible to keep track of all the new models that are constantly being updated. In general super-zoom cameras like these are good all-rounders. They are great if you need one camera that can do absolutely everything. The lens quality is usually not the best, purely because of the large range (30x zoom etc) that need to be fit within a small physical dimension. But, learn how to use all the features and these cameras can serve you well and for a long time.

      All the tip sin the article hold true whatever camera you’re using. If you’re looking for pointers on some very specific aspect of these cameras, drop me a line from my contact page and I’ll see what I can do.

      Happy clicking.

  • Cflores says:

    Hi Ilove taking pictures i own a sony digital camera i was wondering if you would be able to tell me of a good computer program that i can use at home to enhance my photography that involves both people and nature.thank you for the post

    • At most times I use a combination of two pieces of software for editing and enhancing photos:

      IrfanView is simpler and quicker to work with, but is limited to global adjustments, which is perfectly fine when you have a good picture which you want to tweak a little. GIMP is fairly complex if you’ve never used it before (similar to Photoshop), but once you get the hang of it, you can do a lot with it. You can see my description of using GIMP to correct over exposed pictures to get an idea of the level of adjustment possible.

  • Meme says:

    i currently use a canon a590 is point and shoot camera, however I like taking pix of family and want to get into taking more professional looking pix. Can you suggest a camera that is good to invest in but be budget friendly as income is issue. I have been looking at canon, and Nikon if there is something you can recommend I am looking at point and shoot as well as dslr

  • Paulina says:

    Hello, I wanted to buy myself a good quality camera, that is not too expensive, e.g. around or less than £200. I have found lots of cameras on internet around this price and I’ve looked at the reviews from people, that bought them. Unfortunately there are lots of cameras, that I like and I cannot decide :( . I wanted to buy SLR/DSLR but I’m a begginer and I want to improve my skils first. I’m interested mostly at bridge cameras. I’ve looked at Fujifilm Finepix, Olympus SZ and SP types. The prices are reasonable, but I’ve also looked at Nikon Coolpix and Canon Powershot, but they are quite expensive. I’m looking forward from hearing from you.

  • Deon Dsouza says:

    Hello,I have seen a lot of photographs which have blur in the background with a smart focus on the subject.I was wondering if i could do the same with a point and shoot camera.I have a Sony cybershot DSC-W650.I would really appreciate your help.

    Thank you.

  • Sourabh says:

    Hi Samir,

    A wonderful blog!!! I was head over heels after finding it. Have downloaded all the recommended books by you. will go through them.

    And yes I need tips of what can I do with my newly bought fujifilm s2950 digi cam.

    I am novice so your tips are much appreciated :)

    Thanks again !!!

  • Ashleigh Catherine says:

    Hey great tips :) i love taking photos but they always seem distorted, bland, or just unflattering but thanks to you I can take quality pictures :D….i had a question, i love it when a photo has the blurry background and focus on the subject, how do I do that effect on my photos?

  • meme says:

    hi Samir,
    I have been take a lot of photos with my canon g12,I am trying to get in taken more pro pix of family. I purchase templates off of ebay to edit in adobe or corel.My question is would it be better quality to take photos with a green, or blue background and then remove drag the photo over the template I want. also do you recommend filters when taking photos for a more pro look?

    • Hi Meme,

      I’m not completely sure of what kind of templates you mean to use with your photographs. Feel free to share more details here. I will assume they are either border or frame styles, or some sort of background imagery, like a studio backdrop. A green background, or ‘green-screen’ as it’s called in the movie business, is used in cases where people need to be pasted on to backgrounds that don’t exist in the present location, or don’t exist at all, as in the case of computer graphics and such. So yes, if your templates are backgrounds, a green background might help you cleanly separate the person from the background and paste them on a new one. Keep in mind though, that a green background for this needs to be a particularly bright green and very well and evenly lit to be most useful.

      Your question about filters is a tricky one, because there is no universal answer. Most professional photographers will use ‘filters’ of some sort to make their final photo better. But this can range from tiny adjustments of contrast to specific visual effects. With filters, I find the best rule-of-thumb is to be as frugal as possible to create the image you want. I personally like to err on the side of caution while using filters, but some enjoy the over-filtered, heavily-modified look in pictures and that can work too. Filters can’t guarantee a better, more professional looking, picture, but they are sometimes essential.


  • Rob says:

    I am a firm believer in taking portrait photos with a blurred background. They make the subject much more interesting when it doesn’t lead the viewer’s eye away into a distracting background. Try it yourself. Take two photos of the same subject. One with and one without a blurred background. You’ll be surprised at the difference.

  • albeir says:

    How i can take professional single photo for passport at home?

    • Passport photo rules and requirements vary from country to country, so make use you are following the ones you need to, for example, some places need a white or light background, some don’t have a norm and so on. In general, you’ll need some good light. Tungsten light bulbs will usually give you too yellow a result, which you’ll then have to adjust with white balance settings and such. You can do very well with just natural day-light through a window, as long as the person is evenly lit. A face lit from only one side will not usually be acceptable as a photograph for passports and identities.

      On the camera side of things, make sure you are not using too wide a lens as it distorts faces. Traditionally something around a 70mm focal-length has been considered a portrait lens. This forces you to step back and gives you results that look more like the person. If you have a zoom lens, try zooming in to replicate the longer focal length.

      That covers the basics. Good, even light, and a slightly longer lens should give you a good start with taking passport photos. All the best.

  • Amber says:

    Hey. Thanks for all the good tips. I normally shot nature photos, but my sister is expecting her first child in one month and she asked me to shot her. I love doing black and whites, but for her I wanted to do a blurry looking back ground so focus is on her and her belly. Is there a product to put on lens of the camera to blur the top of the photo? I don’t want to do just close up cause I have beautiful autumn as my back drop but I want focus on her. Any tips?

    • Hey Amber,

      The way to get blurry backgrounds in portraits is to use a very wide aperture setting on your camera. If you have an SLR, you can set it to Aperture Priortity (Av) and change the aperture to the lowest number you can (f2, f3.5 etc). Some higher-end compact cameras will also have an Av mode. If you have a simpler camera, you are likely to have a ‘portrait’ mode which is likely to do the same thing.

      How blurred you can get the background depends on the lens you’re using. For maximum effect, keep your subject (your sister) fairly close, and let the background elements be as far away as possible. Then make sure the focus is on the subject and you should do well.

      All the best with your project, and my best wishes to your sister. If you have any more question feel free to ask.


  • Lorenzo says:

    I actually read this article a year ago and came back today for a fresher upper. Great job with this article Samir

  • Ali Albahar says:

    Dear Samir …
    I’m so proud to see an Arabic person like you .. !
    you are so professional and love to help , God bless you

  • hasan says:

    please tell me what is dept of field. thanks & GOD BLESS YOU.

  • Thank you Samir, a very well written article with important, easy-to-follow points!

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